Hydrogen Power: Another Solution to the Energy Crunch

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Roger Billings aboard a tractor he converted to run on hydrogen power.
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Billing's license plate.

In “Lance Crombie – Spokesperson for the Alcohol-fuel Movementand “The Alcohol Fuel Solution,” we told you about alcohol and its
potential as a fuel.
Well, we sure haven’t lost our enthusiasm for this
excellent renewable resource, but we’re also
excited about another source of
energy–hydrogen–which many folks feel is the
fuel of the future.

Recently, MOTHER EARTH NEWS sent a staffer and a photographer out
to Provo, Utah to talk to Roger Billings, head of the
Billings Energy Corporation. Between manufacturing computer
systems and doing hydrogen research, Mr. Billings is quite
a busy gentleman. Nevertheless, he took the time to
discuss the various aspects of hydrogen power with us, including
its production and use as a fuel. The points he brought up
were interesting enough, but the equipment he demonstrated
was even more impressive: it provided us with
proof that hydrogen power isn’t just yesterday’s dream, but
today’s reality!

Petroleum–though far from an ideal source of
fuel–is essentially the energy that our society runs
on. But, with the planet’s supply of “black gold”
dwindling, alternative sources of energy must be developed. One of the most likely candidates for a substitute
fuel is hydrogen.

Although this light gas is one of the most abundant
elements on earth (plentiful in water and in both
fossil and nonfossil matter), it’s rarely found in a
natural free state. Therefore, the fuel must be isolated
(which until recently involved a costly manufacturing
process), and the very economics of that
separation–plus the storage problems that hydrogen
presents–made the gas impractical as a fuel in the
past.

In the last decade, however, there have been many advances
in the hydrogen field, and–thanks to researchers like
Mr. Billings–this fuel is very near to becoming a
practical energy source.

Why Hydrogen?

Obviously, hydrogen isn’t the only solution to our
“power” problems, but it does happen to be one of the
better ones. Since the gas is present in almost all matter,
our supply is virtually inexhaustible. In addition,
hydrogen is lightweight, non-toxic, and highly efficient as
a fuel (it has a high heat value of about 62,400 Btu’s per
pound, as opposed to petroleum oil with 19,000 and
natural gas with 22,500) and it can be substituted for most
fuels being used today. Even better, this plentiful energy
source is entirely nonpolluting (the only
by-product produced by burning hydrogen is water vapor, if
the combustion temperatures are controlled) and leaves no
residue.

Costs Are Competitive

There are two ways of manufacturing hydrogen: One is
electrolysis, in which water is separated by an electric
current into its two basic elements (hydrogen and oxygen),
and the second is a process called reforming, which uses
high-temperature steam to liberate the hydrogen from coal,
natural gas, or solid wastes.

On a small scale, the electrolysis method is more
cost-effective … especially since the Billings
corporation has been perfecting a homestead package that
will allow individuals to virtually “make their own.” But
in production quantities (unless inexpensive hydroelectric
power is available) the reforming process is far cheaper–so much so, in fact, that the cost of one “gallon” of
hydrogen (2.25 pounds of hydrogen supply the energy
equivalent of one gallon of gasoline) is about 25¢!

Hydrogen is also economical for heating purposes. Whereas
natural gas figures out to a cost of about $2.44 per
million Btu’s at today’s
prices, hydrogen comes to only $2.00 for every
million Btu’s worth of energy. If hydrogen production were carried out on a
large-scale basis, the costs could be reduced by as much as
30% even if conventional energy sources were used to
“free” the gas.

And that brings up another point: Hydrogen can be produced
by a number of means that don’t depend on conventional
fossil fuels. Solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal,
tidal, and ocean-thermal energy are currently being
investigated as power sources, and solar energy is actually
being used to release the gas from a storage state in the
Billings operation.

How It Works 

Since full-scale hydrogen production is still a few years
off (although the Billings firm is now working on
coal-to-gas conversion plants), it would be better to look
at the small-scale electrolysis package that Billings
presently markets. This $15,000 kit consists of [1] the
electrolyzer, which produces hydrogen gas by “filtering”
water with a special membrane that allows the hydrogen to
pass through the material, leaving the oxygen behind,
and [2] the hydride-filled hydrogen storage tank, which
can safely hold the gas for an indefinite
period of time.

Until recently, hydrogen storage has been expensive,
somewhat dangerous, and inefficient. But the Billings
research labs have perfected the use of an iron/titanium
hydride which–when granulated and placed in a
pressure tank–soaks up hydrogen like a sponge. This
“chemical container” not only allows the vessel to hold up
to four times as much of the gas (under the same pressure)
as it would without the hydrides, but also assures that the
fuel can be stored safely. In fact, during recent tests,
armor-piercing incendiary bullets were shot through the
gas-filled containers with nothing more than a small flame
(which quickly extinguished itself) as a result.

The gas within the storage tank can be released by heat:
either from the sun or from the hydrogen itself as it
combusts, depending on the application. And there are
quite a few possible uses, including home heating, cooking,
engine fuel, and even electric power generation. Roger
Billings admits that the potential is nearly endless and
feels safe in saying, “Any energy application that requires
the burning of hydrocarbon fuels can be converted to
hydrogen. At least I haven’t seen one yet that
couldn’t.” And Roger should know, since not only is he
running the family car and a small garden tractor on the
gas, but he’s set up a homestead that’s entirely
hydrogen powered
, just to show that it does indeed
work.

Hydrogen’s Future 

Enough technology exists right now to allow us to become a
hydrogen-powered society provided that we had ample
reserves of the gas. But–while plans are being made
to produce the gas in quantity –the Billings Energy
Corporation is just as busy converting existing equipment
to use hydrogen. This adaptation can be as simple as
installing a steel wool catalyst (covered with a stainless
steel screen) on the burner of a stove. The automotive
conversions are a bit more complicated, but again, Billings
has the problems licked. In fact, he is presently
marketing a dual-fuel Dodge Omni (hydrogen-or
gasoline-powered)–complete with the
hydrogen-producing package–for about $30,000. Although high, the price will come down as more units are sold.

Looking to the future, the Billings Energy Corporation has
drawn up a 10-year plan that’s now on its way to becoming a
reality. The initial goal is to have the 4,000-person
community of Forest City, Iowa fully converted to hydrogen
power (including autos, buses, and municipal vehicles)
within the next five years. If that project goes as planned
(and there’s no reason it shouldn’t), Billings next aims to
convert a city the approximate size of Denver, Colorado to
hydrogen fuel. The Billings firm has already taken part in
an experimental program that tested hydrogen-powered buses
in the cities of Provo and Riverside, Utah, with
encouraging results.

Needless to say, we’re only beginning to take advantage of
the potential of hydrogen fuels. In a few
years–or perhaps even sooner–we might all [1]
reduce our dependence on imported oil, [2] eliminate our
surplus of solid waste, and [3] be breathing cleaner air, all in one fell swoop!